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Death in the desert

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Jodi Peterson | Jun 19, 2013 12:00 AM

Updated 6/24/13

Two weekends ago I traveled to Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado to do some reporting for a future story on diversity in the parks system. On Monday morning, the 10th, I was waiting in the administration office for my appointment with Cliff Spencer, the park's black superintendent, to begin. I heard bursts coming over the radio:  "last seen ... search team found some tracks ... helicopter coming … "   Cliff told me that a hiker had disappeared the previous afternoon; he'd told his wife he was going to walk down to Spruce Tree House, a ruin just a quarter-mile away down a paved trail. But he'd never returned, and now the park was mounting a full search and rescue effort.

It didn't sound promising. Daytime highs were over 100 in the park's rocky canyons. The 51-year-old was carrying no water, no extra gear. He was on vacation with his family from Goliad, Texas, a city near sea level, while much of the park is over 7,000 feet in elevation. So park staff mounted a full-scale search effort, with searchers on foot, dog teams, horses, even a helicopter that clattered low over the canyons all day.

Late that afternoon, despite the 102-degree heat, I decided to hike the 3-mile-long Petroglyph Point trail, which splits off from the Spruce Tree House trail and leads upward along the east wall of Spruce Canyon. Steep and rugged, it sidles along ledges and alcoves, squeezes between tall rocks, and ascends rough stairsteps hewn from sandstone blocks. Just after I passed the panel of petroglyphs for which the trail was named, I heard a man's voice from somewhere up ahead. "I need some help," he called, sounding gravelly, weary. I couldn't pinpoint the location, and I thought whoever I'd heard was probably talking to some companions. I kept walking. But when I reached the point where the trail climbs out of the canyon, perhaps ten minutes later, I realized that I hadn't seen or heard any other hikers, ahead or behind.

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park


Then I suddenly thought of the missing man. Perhaps after visiting Spruce Tree House, he'd decided to go up this trail to see the petroglyphs, tried to take a shortcut back down the canyon wall, and had fallen. I went back to where I'd heard the voice and called out several times, but got no response. I thought about going off trail to look, but figured I'd become Victim #2 if I tried to scramble down the ledges and cliffs. My cell phone had no signal. Hiking back quickly to find a ranger seemed to be about all I could do. Sweating and a little shaky, I reached the museum an hour later, and told the woman behind the counter what I'd heard. "The chief ranger is going to want to talk to you," she exclaimed, excited. Leading me to his office, she said, "We don't like it when things like this happen."

The chief ranger was excited too. Cautious relief washed over his face. "We thought we heard a call for help in that area yesterday," said one of the other rangers in his office. He had me tell my story again to the leader of the search teams, who immediately began planning to bring dogs and more searchers into that area. I felt hopeful that what I'd heard would help them find the man, who probably wouldn't last much longer without water.

I left the ranger station and stood looking at the opposite side of the canyon, where I'd heard the call. I said a silent prayer.

When I got back to Paonia, Colo., HCN’s home base, last Tuesday afternoon, I checked the news, thinking I'd read that the hiker been found, was dehydrated and maybe injured but would be okay. Instead, I read that Mitchell Dale Stehling was still missing, and 60 to 70 people were now searching for him. His family remained optimistic, reported the Cortez Journal.

Mitchell Dale Stehling
Mitchell Dale Stehling, missing in Mesa Verde National Park

The National Park Service mounts about 3,300 such search-and-rescue operations per year, at a total cost of about $4.5 million; most occur in Western parks, because of their high number of visitors and rugged backcountry environments. Parks like Yosemite sometimes have more than 200 rescue attempts per year.

Now, it's been more than a week since Stehling vanished. The search has been scaled down, and the odds of him being found alive are close to zero. Perhaps he fell between big rocks in a place where searchers can't see him; perhaps wind shifts made the dogs miss his scent. The park's press release on June 15 conveys the searchers' frustration:

On Friday, the trail where Stehling was last seen and nearby canyons were again searched. Rangers used the park's helicopter to search the canyons and mesas of the park while ground-based teams thoroughly searched nearby canyons and trails. The saturation of this area by searchers, dog teams, a helicopter, and horse patrol provided a great deal of coverage, but resulted in no clues.

Saturday, search managers plan to scale back to a continuous, but limited mode in which a small team of rangers will continue to focus their search in the areas where Mr. Stehling was last seen. Flyers with Mr. Stehling's picture and description remain posted throughout the park.

I think of Edward Abbey's thoughts on a similar situation, in "Dead Man at Grandview Point" (a chapter of Desert Solitaire):

Looking out on this panorama of light, space, rock and silence I am inclined to congratulate the dead man on his choice of jumping-off place; he had good taste. He had good luck – I envy him the manner of his going: to die alone, on a rock under sun at the brink of the unknown, like a wolf, like a great bird, seems to me very good fortune indeed. To die in the open, under the sky, far from the insolent interference of leech and priest, before this desert vastness opening like a window onto eternity – that surely was an overwhelming stroke of rare good luck.

Mesa Verde National Park
Rugged canyons in Mesa Verde National Park

But was it really, Ed? Yeah, it sounds like a free and romantic way to exit this earth, and along with many of my outdoor friends, I've talked about wanting to die alone outside when the time comes. "Like Lawrence Oates," I say, a member of Scott's ill-fated 1911 polar expedition who walked out into a blizzard to die. "On some freezing cold night, I'll say what he did: 'I'm just going outside, and may be some time.' " My friend Albert imagines another sort of ending: "My last moment will be at 12,000' in a thunderstorm. There'll be a big flash and all that'll be left is my flask and my hiking boots." And Joe has already picked out which of his sleeping bags will be his coffin.

But is that truly how any of us wants to die, alone in the wilderness, unattended except by beetles and vultures? I recall also the wise and gentle words of Ana Maria Spagna, a counterpoint to old Macho Ed, writing about how gladly she took care of her dying mother in the hospital in her essay "Natural Comfort":

When I die, I'd just as soon die surrounded by those I love. And while I live, I'd just as soon live like my fellow springtime travelers, all those familiar faces bleary-eyed in the elevators of the cancer hospital, those who face the gentle night with agonized patience and those brave enough to usher them through, rather than champion one quick cold night in the forest. I'll offer comfort. And, when the time comes, I'll take it.

I have no idea if Mitchell Dale Stehling was the man I heard calling for help among the cliffs on that hot Monday afternoon. I don't know anything about him, really, or about his family. But I think  that, given the choice, his wife and daughters would have wanted to offer comfort too. And I think he would have taken it.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's Managing Editor.

Ben Perry
Ben Perry Subscriber
Jun 19, 2013 02:51 PM
First, my condolences to the missing man's family.

Kudos to Jodi Peterson for her thoughtful consideration of a subject many of us consider while we're pushing our own limits in the backcountry (or even just relaxing in a remote location). I've been thoroughly, hopelessly lost in the hinterland on several occasions, had a raging wildfire blocking the only blazed path back to my car, and hiked in locations where active missing persons operations were being conducted. One cannot but think of one's own mortality and second-guess the sequence of events that created the situation at hand.

We would all prefer to die on our own terms, but sometimes those terms are dictated to us. Perhaps the answer is as simple and trite as "follow your bliss" -- the less time you spend in situations that you find disagreeable, the more likely that your eventual end comes in a time and place (and with the company) that meets your approval.

That said, I think "Macho Ed" gets a bit of a raw deal here. Careful readers of Abbey sooner or later realize that the gruff, Galtish persona created in "Desert Solitaire" and developed throughout Ed's literary career is a front intended to protect a fragile soul (and sell books). Yes, Abbey was a tough bastard, but more than that, he was a lover -- too much of a lover, most times. He loved people, places, things, himself. Whatever he thought at the time he wrote "Desert Solitaire," surely by the time his own end was near Ed realized that there was no luck in dying -- just in doing it on your own terms.
Jahne Turley
Jahne Turley
Jun 20, 2013 01:49 AM
I must start off by letting you know that Dale is my brother in law. (but more like a dad)
When I stumbled apon this article I was in shock. You are the last person to have heard his voice. I had to read it several times to process it. Thank you. In a strange way I have found a hint of peace. I know that Dale was soaking up the scenery and probably amazed by its beauty. (he loved nature and lived his life enjoying it)
Thomas Johnson
Thomas Johnson Subscriber
Jun 22, 2013 06:39 PM
Great article, however, why did the author make it point to let us know the race of the superintendent? It had no earring on the scope of the piece and I thought HCN was supposed to be color blind???
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
Jun 22, 2013 07:18 PM
Might have been because he got a mention in this terrific HCN article http://www.hcn.org/[…]/in-search-of-diversity-in-our-national-parks by James Mills. Sometimes one notices people by their absence.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Jun 24, 2013 07:49 AM
Thomas--You may have missed Jodi's explanation in the lead paragraphs of the blog. She was at Mesa Verde researching a story on diversity in the National Park Service. Let us know if you have further questions.

--Sarah Gilman, High Country News associate editor
Alexander Viechec
Alexander Viechec Subscriber
Jun 28, 2013 12:05 PM
This article immediately reminded me of the same chapter from Desert Solitaire. Abbey did go on to say, however, "It would be unforgivably presumptuous to pretend to speak *for* the dead man on these matters; he may not have agreed with a word of it, not at all. On the other hand ... it seems possible that in the end he yielded with good grace." I think he realized a lot of his own visions were romantic. Surely there is nothing romantic about dying of thirst, exposure, or traumatic injury when it is actually happening to you, but for some of us a romantic view of death provides some comfort. It's too bad that Ed's own passing was not on his terms, and was exactly opposite of his romantic vision. Great article, experiences like this are very powerful when they hit so close to home.

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